Bunks at Mule Creek State Prison were arranged due to overcrowding. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
SACRAMENTO — Federal judges have extended until April 18 the deadline for Gov. Jerry Brown's administration to ease prison crowding, after asking the state to limit the time some mentally ill prisoners spend in solitary confinement.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton announced that he had accepted the state's offer of a 30-day isolation maximum for severely mentally ill inmates who have committed no rule violations. He then joined two other jurists in pushing back the overcrowding deadline and also in extending negotiations between the state and prisoners' lawyers until Jan. 10.
In September, the judges ordered the state and the inmates' attorneys to negotiate long-term solutions to the crowding problem, including the early release of frail or elderly prisoners. In Wednesday's order, the jurists said they expected no further extension of those talks "absent extraordinary circumstances," but they left open the possibility of more delays in the population deadline, formerly set for Feb. 24.
Transcripts of courtroom proceedings show that the talks, which are under a gag order, recently took a twist. Karlton, who is holding hearings on California's treatment of mentally ill prisoners in addition to sitting on the three-judge panel, expressed concern about some 230 mentally ill prisoners housed in isolation cells despite having committed no infractions.
State prison officials told the court that the inmates were isolated for their own protection or while awaiting space in a mental health unit.
Karlton said, according to the transcripts, that the state's request for more time to reduce inmate numbers should not be granted as long as the state allowed mentally ill inmates to remain in isolation without cause.
Lawyers for the state clearly wanted to address the judge's concerns about solitary confinement. The transcripts show that at one point last week, officials rushed documents to Karlton for review. At another moment, they offered to produce Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard to speak with the judge.
Karlton said he was told that Brown's office "understood the nature of the problem" and promised a quick remedy.
In a separate action Tuesday, Karlton ordered the state to create a plan to provide long-term psychiatric care for mentally ill prisoners on death row. He said the state's efforts to improve such care had been good, but the situation remained inadequate — a finding that could affect Brown's chances of ending court oversight of prison healthcare.
Inadequate medical and mental healthcare are among the reasons the judges ordered California to remove 9,600 inmates from its prisons.
The new Jan. 10 cutoff for the crowding negotiations coincides with the deadline for Brown's 2014 state spending plan. Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), a participant in the talks, said in a statement to The Times that the timing gives the court and other parties a chance to see how the governor proposes to fund inmate reduction efforts.
Steinberg is seeking increased spending on mental health and substance abuse programs to reduce the rate at which ex-offenders return to prison.